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Promoters refuse to tap out, but struggle with crisis in Brazilian MMA

When Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira walked to the Octagon at HSBC Arena for his 40th professional fight at UFC 134, he was seconds away from competing for the very first time in home soil. He was a legend of the sport, a former champion in the PRIDE ring and the UFC cage, but never had the privilege of performing in front of a crowd of his countrymen before that night.

He’s an exception.

The vast majority of the Brazilian mixed martial arts stars who shined around the world over the past few decades had to compete in regional promotions in Brazil to make a name for themselves before storming the international stages, but the current landscape of Brazilian MMA is making that task harder for young talents.

MMA promotions popped up left and right in the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially after the UFC’s first trip to Brazil in 1998. Things slowed down a bit after that before the explosion that accompanied Anderson Silva’s front kick to Vitor Belfort’s jaw in 2011. Suddenly everyone wanted to talk and watch fights. The sport was everywhere. For a time, the UFC was running upwards of seven events per year in Brazil, until eventually over-saturation and economic crisis forced the American company to dial itself back.

For many different reasons, local shows started to become rare as well, giving fighters less platforms to build their records.

At one point, especially when the UFC was staging more than five cards a year in Brazil, Jungle Fight was the go-to place for UFC matchmakers when a short-notice fighter was needed. Wallid Ismail held 16 editions of Jungle Fight in 2013 and a dozen more the following year, and back then winning a belt in his promotion usually meant being weeks or months away from signing with the UFC. The same cannot be said anymore. Over the past 24 months, Ismail has only held five shows.

“The economy is bad,” Ismail says. “It’s a series of things. Events in Brazil are made to create talent, but one thing leads to others. With less UFC events in Brazil because of the economy, there are less Brazilian athletes signed by the UFC. You invest in the sport to take them to the UFC, that’s my case. I only work with the UFC, basically, and when there’s less demand from the UFC, I have less demand to do events here. But we’re coming back.”

Andre Pederneiras, who has owned the rights to promote Japan’s Shooto events in Brazil since 2003, is a different case. Unlike Ismail, his events basically are a platform to showcase athletes from his own Nova Uniao gym. Despite the crisis, “Dede” closed 2018 with 10 events held over the calendar year, but he’s able to do so only because he has many other businesses that allowed him to buy all the structures he needs and invest money into building a huge training center in Rio de Janeiro, where he promotes the shows. If that wasn’t the case, Pederneiras admits he would have stopped doing events “a long time ago.”

“It’s impossible to promote events in Brazil today,” Pederneiras says. “If you don’t take money out of your pocket, you don’t do it. That’s the truth. There are no sponsors. Many people continue doing events in Brazil, but most never worried about building something for when the winter comes. I have. If I made some money with my event, I’ll buy that lamp or that sound (equipment) over there. I slowly built this, and that’s why I can do events today. I have the structure that allows me to do events with or without sponsors.”

In Campinas, a small city next to Sao Paulo that lives and breathes MMA, Ricardo Saldanha has promoted dozens of events over the past decade. Max Fight, his most popular promotion, has served as a platform for many athletes who later joined the UFC and other big promotions in the United States. But even after holding 20 Max Fight cards since 2008 and owning many other smaller companies, Saldanha admits he hasn’t made a profit as a MMA promoter.

”It was okay in 2016, but it got really complicated in 2017,” Saldanha says. “Sponsors were almost gone, people weren’t buying tickets. I’d take the risk many times because I knew I would be able to sell 2,000 tickets in a gymnasium, but it’s hard nowadays. You can’t risk that much if you don’t have sponsors, or you’re screwed. You do it knowing that you’ll lose money, or don’t do it at all.”

It’s common to see coaches and team leaders start their own fight promotion in Brazil. There’s no law stopping them from doing so, and it’s a way to guarantee that your athletes will have a place to compete, evolve, and eventually catch the attention of an international company.

Marcelo Brigadeiro held more than 60 Aspera FC events over a five-year span. Focusing now on his new promotion, Sicario MMA, Brigadeiro relied on tickets sales to make sure he wouldn’t lose money as a promoter, but being able to properly promote a card while he also works as a coach and manager — and being involved with politics earlier this year — proved to be too much. Brigadeiro lost money on his first 20 events, he says, before finally starting to make some small level of a profit. He’s currently in negotiations to sell Aspera FC to American investors, but will continue working as a promoter with Sicario.

Tata Duarte, the coach of Thiago Santos and many others at TFT, founded Watch Out Combat Show (WOCS) in 2008 to provide an outlet for his proteges to compete. After 52 cards in 10 years, he misses the days when “the market was hot” in the early 2010s.

“Business was good,” Duarte says. “The economy was strong, but then it went dry. It started to change for us in 2014. We only did two WOCS that year, and then four in 2015. I kept it alive, but started to cut costs in production. This ‘show’ aspect of it became fights only. We took the risk and would pay the costs if it wasn’t profitable. Sometimes we had a nice card and sold good tickets, but then we would lose money on the next one. We need it for the team, right brother? I do it for the kids, 100 percent. If you’re going to do an MMA event as a business, you will lose money.”

Earlier this year, after staging his events in a five-star hotel in Rio de Janeiro, Duarte was forced to cut costs and move his shows back to a small gym in Tijuca. Even after spending 60 percent less money per event, he still didn’t make any money on his most recent shows.

“If the UFC is losing money in Brazil, imagine us in the regional scene,” Duarte says. “We’d rather keep it small but alive than fade away like Jungle Fight. Shooto can do it because ‘Dede’ has his own structure. We were planning on doing six events this year, but we’ll only do five because I can’t do more. I do it for the team, but I won’t do anything crazy and burn money.”

One of the biggest issues in having few promotions active in Brazil is that talent won’t be really ready for the big leagues when the call comes. “Minotauro” Nogueira, who now works as a UFC brand ambassador and also scouts talent for the UFC in Brazil alongside Denis Martins, watches fights all of the time. With dozens of Team Nogueira franchises scattered all over Brazil, the veteran fighter also owned his own fight promotion in the past — the Team Nogueira Circuit, where young talent tried to prove they’re ready for bigger platforms. Nogueira wasn’t making any money with the project, but he also wasn’t spending a lot either since the fights were contested inside his own gym in Rio de Janeiro.

Nogueira’s brother, UFC light heavyweight Antonio Rogerio Nogueira is the leader of the Brazilian Amateur MMA Federation alongside veteran Carlos Barreto. They hope that bringing investment to the early stages of the sport will help produce more talent in the future. As a talent scout, “Minotauro” fears that having less shows hurts the growth of promising prospects. Since he started working for the UFC in 2015, Nogueira has felt the number of Brazilian athletes decrease exponentially over the years.

“What happened in Brazil in the past is happening in Russia today,” Nogueira says. “There are many promotions in Russia, and they are taking Brazilians to fight there. We need to do something about the Brazilian market, make it stronger to produce new fighters. We need new talents competing here, not there.

“They have no other option but fight outside of Brazil because there are few options here,” he continues. “We made a list of fighters for the Contender Series Brazil and we felt a difference [in the numbers] from 2015 to 2017. We sent a list of 220 fighters first, but then it dropped to 146. Most of them are on a winning streak, but there are athletes going to Russia to fight and suffering defeats. They could be in a good winning streak in Brazil, but they are snapped overseas due to lack of opportunity here.”

Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting

Who’s to blame?

There are a few explanations for the current scenario in Brazil — and the economic landscape is the obvious one. Companies stopped investing money in sports, even those focused on combat sports. In Dec. 2014, the UFC announced an exclusive apparel deal with Reebok. As a result, most fighters lost their personal sponsorship deals around the world. Some promoters in Brazil thought those brands would then invest that money into the regional scene, but that expectation never turned into reality.

Pederneiras agrees that the deal between the UFC and Reebok had a huge impact on the regional market. Brigadeiro agrees, but puts the blame more on the Brazilian economy.

“The Reebok deal hurt the Brazilian MMA scene,” Saldanha says, “and killed many brands. Tapout, Venum, those brands were way stronger. They cut [their] investment because the UFC would give them exposure and national promotions would reinforce the brand, but that can’t happen anymore. I thought they would invest in the national promotions (after the Reebok deal), but they haven’t.”

To make things worse, Combate — an MMA-only TV channel owned by Globo — made an pivotal change in 2014. From that point on, the channel decided only to televise events that were overseen by the Brazilian MMA Athletic Commission (CABMMA). Combate, which televises all UFC events for the Brazilian market, made that decision following the death of young MMA fighter Leandro Souza, who died hours before the weigh-ins for a Shooto Brazil event in Rio de Janeiro in Sept. 2013.

Many promoters parted ways with Combate after that decision, including Jungle Fight and WOCS. Duarte inked a deal between his promotion and Brazilian TV network Esporte Interativo because, in his words, it would be too expensive to pay the costs of the changes that CABMMA required.

“I think (the Combate deal) was the by far worst thing for Brazil,” Duarte said, claiming that following CABMMA’s demands would increase his costs by 15,000 to 20,000 reais per show, somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000 in U.S. dollars. “[Combate] shot themselves in the foot because there’s less demand now. I’m not against regulating the sport, but you can’t demand from a small show the same things you do from the UFC. You can’t. You can’t expect a fighter that is making R$ 500 to fight to pay R$ 2,000 in exams, plus [extra] for his corners, etc. It’s impracticable, man. And you still have to pay the commission. The event gets 50 percent more expensive.

“The market is too cold now,” he continued. “[Combate] insisted on being UFC-only, so Brazilian MMA started to fade. There’s no up-and-comers, there’s no new idol. Who’s the idol in Brazil? They’ve tried to build some but they came up short, and you won’t move forward because there’s no regional scene. The blame is 100 percent on CABMMA and Combate because they demand a lot and it can’t be done.”

Ismail removed Jungle Fight from Combate after the CABMMA deal in 2014 and signed an exclusive contract with cable channel BandSports. He claims that Jungle Fight is one of the most popular programs on the network, watched by more than a million households in Brazil, and believes the decision did more harm than good for Combate.

“Combate’s demand that you have to work with CABMMA was, to me, the main thing that affected the market, no doubt,” Ismail says. “For that reason they also went from 500,000 subscribers to almost 200,000. That has affected many promotions, not only mine. Nobody wants to watch dishonest events that are run by coaches. Whoever made that decision weakened Brazilian MMA. Whoever made that decision inside Combate doesn’t know the reality in Brazil and helped hurt the sport.”

Pederneiras’ Shooto Brazil continues to air on Combate, but he admits he saves money on other fronts to be able to pay commission costs.

Saldanha also submitted to CABMMA and continues to have Max Fight on the pay-per-view network.

“This (deal) between Combate and CABMMA made national promotions unfeasible,” says Brigadeiro, who had his MMA promotion Centurion on Combate before the CABMMA deal. “What they demand is too much for the reality here. I think it’s cool to have CABMMA regulating the sport, but it makes the sport unfeasible. The concept is correct, but it should have been done gradually instead of something overnight. It’s two or three times more expensive to promote an event. You can’t do it.”

Brigadeiro’s Aspera FC aired on Esporte Interativo, and he founded founded Sicario to have a promotion not contractually tied to Esporte Interativo. However, Aspera FC suffered a major blow when Esporte Interativo closed its doors earlier this year.

Duarte was also hit by the news, since Esporte Interativo aired every edition of WOCS live. When the network closed, Duarte lost sponsorship deals and was forced to cancel one of the cards he had planned for later in the year. In fact, he ended up only holding one show — on Nov. 24 — because some fighters had already traveled to Rio de Janeiro to do their camps, otherwise he would have cancelled that as well.

“The end of Esporte Interativo marked the end of national MMA,” Duarte says. “This deal between Combate and CABMMA needs to go. Combate needs to air events that are worth it and invest on them, pay TV rights. That would allow them to produce a good show. The channel was gaining subscribers and we were making no money off of it. They demand a lot and pay nothing. They would air the best events and give them a tape in the end, and that’s it. Do you think it’s enough?

“Fighters just want to fight in Brazil. It’s not about money for them because there is no money. They just want to fight, but Combate is so focused on the UFC that they shot themselves in the foot by abandoning the national events.”

“There’s this culture in Brazil that you don’t get paid for TV rights in MMA,” Brigadeiro says. “They pay TV rights for eSports, but won’t pay to air an MMA event. Esporte Interativo was embracing the national promotions, helping the sport, but now that you don’t have any network airing the event it’s even hard to find sponsors, so it leads to the MMA going bankrupt in Brazil, unfortunately.”

The other side

MMA Fighting reached out to both Combate and CABMMA for comment on this story. For Combate, the decision to partner with Brazil’s main athletic commission was a way to guarantee higher standards for the events they were airing on the channel.

“We’re aware that many fights were cancelled because a fighter had a clinical diagnosis that put his life at danger or could contaminate his opponent,” Combate states. “Many negative things happened in national events, something that wouldn’t fit in the perspective of professionalism and growth of the sport.”

Combate generally does not reveal how many subscribers they have, but sources say the number currently stands around the 300,000 range after previously surpassing 500,000 following Silva vs. Belfort. The network won’t consider ending the CABMMA deal for now since they believe it’s better for the sport as a whole.

As for TV rights in MMA, Combate says: “We have specific deals for each partner, regardless of the sport. That investment occurs according to what each program provides in terms of audience, commercial plan, pay-per-view and subscribers, for example. There are formats in which there’s no specific licensing value, but it involves production costs for the promoter to have their event televised. Through this and an editorial coverage, it becomes possible for him to better value his sponsorship properties and make business roll.”

CABMMA chairman Rafael Favetti says that what the commission demands from the Brazilian promotions is not the same as what they require for a UFC event. For example, every fighter in the UFC was drug tested by the commission (before the USADA program started), but only four fighters are drug tested per event in Brazilian promotions (two headliners and two randomly selected fighters).

“[Anyone] who says the athletic commission’s protocol is too expensive has a misrepresented view of the things because our protocol is minimal,” Favetti says. “We demand five exams, all available for free in public hospitals — if the athlete is prepared, the cost is zero. … Those who don’t want exams at all, don’t even talk to us. We don’t retreat on this because fighter safety, the sport safety as a whole, is a priority. When something happens to an athlete, the entire sport suffers.

“To the promoter that said that CABMMA killed MMA in Brazil, that’s far from reality. That shows us this promoter is only interested in his profit, not in a professional sport. Saying that you can’t do an event because CABMMA demands too much is a bad answer, (you are) trying to hide his greed for profit. You’re not obligated to affiliate with CABMMA, but we’re recognized as a commission and if you want to work with us, you have to follow these minimal rules.

“By the way, we respect many promotions that are not affiliated with CABMMA and believe they are great promotions, like Jungle Fight. Not being affiliated with CABMMA doesn’t mean you’re wrong. We recognize some promotions that don’t work with us, but do a good job.”

Promoters are hopeful that a bright future lies ahead, but work still needs to be done. For the sake of the next Anderson Silvas and Jose Aldos who are yet to be discovered inside the hundreds of mixed martial arts gyms around the country, someone must find a solution.

Shooto 42 photos
Former UFC champion Jose Aldo as a cornermen for a teammate at Shooto Brazil in Rio de Janeiro.
Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting

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